CTI Podcast - Episode 35: Teaching & Learning Through Dance with Danielle Lydia Sheather


Tony Pellegrini: good morning friends out there Tony Pellegrini with our monthly podcast of teaching and learning at Southern Utah University. We're just tickled to have you on board today with our guests. For us today we have Danielle Lydia Sheather who is Assistant Professor of dance in our college our university. Last year she won the distinguished scholarly creative activity award from the provost office and we just wanted to honor her and visit with her about some of the wonderful opportunities that she's been engaged with here at Southern Utah University. Danielle, could you tell us as welcome thank you so very much for being here this morning with us. 

Danielle Lydia Sheather: Yeah, thank you very much for having me. I really, really, really appreciate it. 

Tony Pellegrini: You are very welcome. It's just a pleasure. Could you tell us maybe a little bit about your background? What brought you to SUU? 

Danielle Lydia Sheather: Yeah, sure. Well, I've been studying dance. You know, I wouldn't say rigorously since I was three, but I definitely started dancing at a young age of similar story to most young girls and I grew up in Canada, but my dad's American so as soon as I was born, he trips like across the street to the American Embassy and got myself Birth Abroad papers so I have dual citizenship. So my primary education and dance was in Canada and occasionally in the United States. We go to Buffalo for workshops and things like that. And then I did my undergraduate at the University of Buffalo. I don't know if I'm allowed to admit this, but I'm not sure that I ever wanted to be an educator, kind of my last ideas professionally for a number of years and went back and got my master's at the University of Arizona. I got an MFA. I was a university fellow there. I had the opportunity to teach via graduate teaching assistantship as assistant there. I'm sorry, I also had the opportunity to go study in Europe for 90 days. So I did the 90 days exact so I didn't have to get a visa. Yeah. And I've managed to, you know, secure a couple positions. So my first position out of grad school was at East Carolina University as an instructor. It was only supposed to be a semester commitment, but they kept me on for the year which was lovely. And then I got a position at my alma mater at the University of Buffalo. And there I was, they call it a clinical assistant professor, so it's not a tenure track professor. So there's, you know, different ways of being able to move out but certainly different, you know, sort of different avenues. And then the tenure track position at SUU came up, I applied, and here I am. I was hired to be in the jazz program here at Southern Utah University. So right now jazz isn't necessarily a requirement at any other university in Utah and having kind of been able to make a career out of everything. So I've been paid to do ballet. I've been paid to do jazz. I've been paid to do tap and payed to do contemporary and I value that experience. I think it's important to recognize all fields and all genres of dance, and I guess I feel like I'm living proof that that can happen even though sometimes in my career I was always told, Well, you're gonna have to choose, you'd have to make a choice. And I feel very blessed to also be able to teach dance history. So that's what I do here and consider the generalist because I can teach everything, but that's, that's a little bit about me. 

Tony Pellegrini: That is exciting. I've connected on so many levels. Just last night, I have a three year old granddaughter. She was over. She was over and listening to music and couldn't stop dancing. Yes, I did not encourage her to stop dancing. I promise you. Absolutely love that. Tell us a little bit. How long have you been here at SUU and some of the interesting things maybe what you found with our university with learners who you are connecting with? 

Danielle Lydia Sheather: Sure. Um, so I started in 2019 about a semester and a bit of normalcy and then COVID hit and so I've been here since 2019. I have some that might have been technically in my fourth year I guess not completed yet. My goodness the mountains that you know, being 30 minutes away from Zion is just beautiful. Our first hike that my husband so Mark Farrier, he's an English professor here I mean lecturer I should say. Sorry. We went to Kanarraville and it was amazing and it was beautiful. And how serendipitous because we were taking all these pictures and then of course the only one that his phone restarted the only one that we actually have is at the top of the trailhead, but we have these wonderful memories of you know, hiking and waist deep waters and it was just lovely. So that's been something that's very different. I've predominantly lived in cities. East Carolina University was in Greenville, North Carolina, so a little bit more rural but not like this, and of course in the mountains. So that's been incredible. With respect to learners, you know, culturally, it's different here. Again, I come from a really big city atmosphere. So that's why I'm a big fan of Dr. Nehama McCarthy grounds, culturally responsive teaching. And I think it's really helpful to honor the lived experiences that are in the room, and also create a space where there's an opportunity to come with your most authentic self, but also recognize that I don't know everything you don't know everything, and together we'll learn another something and I can't take credit for that comes from my mentor in grad school, Doug Belson, but I do I think there's a way to communicate and create together well, maybe coming from different cultural backgrounds. So that's been something that's been sticking out with me for quite a time since I've been here. 

Tony Pellegrini: Exciting and your students relate well with that they connect well. 

Danielle Lydia Sheather: Yeah, I mean, I do this at the beginning of the semester. Again, not new but important. I think we'd start with agreements. So I introduced some agreements that weren't necessarily in place when I was a professional dancer that could have made me feel safer or could have made me feel more secure. And I explained to them why I feel the way that I feel. And then the students come up with on their own and together and in groups and then we discuss as a group. Do you think that this is a way to move forward through the semester? You know, we don't take the whole class but we certainly communicate in that way to make sure that you know, everybody feels comfortable physically, mentally, emotionally. And yeah, it's been really, really fun. And as I continue to do it, especially with the juniors and the seniors, I see them starting to take ownership over it, which is really nice. And it's always nice because I always teach freshmen as well. So I love this experience of seeing them grow through the process of just that exercise alone.

Tony Pellegrini: [unintelligible] say that teachers were not in it for the money but to see the students grow so powerful and, and just very, very appreciative of the, the spirit that you have, as well to have that I was touched by the issue that you brought up with safety, how important it is. When we learn to feel that we're safe and that and again, to allow your students to have the opportunity to to make some suggestions maybe or some opportunity, hey, could we try this? Can we try that to make me feel safe?

Danielle Lydia Sheather: Well, I think to like the contribution like contributions from students, allows them to get ownership and I'll say this to you know, a safe space for me isn't going to be a safe space for somebody else. Right? So also recognizing that so the other thing that I really like to use is this idea of brave space where we're not always going to get along. I teach dance history, and I don't teach the history that I learned. And sometimes that can be difficult because we're hearing things for the first time or we're learning things for the first time. Just last last week, we were talking about reggae music, and a student was like, I had no idea that reggae music was protest music, and I was like, wow, okay, let's listen to Bob Marley's Buffalo Soldier. And none of them knew what a Buffalo Soldier was, and I can't vilify them for not knowing that right like, didn't learn that. But it's a really exciting opportunity to get them to understand the ways in which some of the popular culture that we participate in we might not exactly know what's going on. And so to offer a brave space and again, I I am fully prepared to admit to my students when they asked me a question, I don't know something I absolutely say I don't know. And I don't know if that comes from my I don't know my desire to maybe not have wanted to be an educator my whole life that I was very much like I add this that's a whole lot of bags to open up. But I think in some ways, there's this idea of peeking curiosity and understanding that it's okay to disagree and to still have conversation around it and, you know, actively participate in sharing resources.

Tony Pellegrini: I think it's fascinating as well to bring in goes bringing two subjects that maybe don't, or maybe we find difficult to connect like history and dance, and to think oh, we can learn about history through dance.

What a wonderful way to connect with some of your learners. A very physical, yeah, physical approach. That's why they're, thank you so much for sharing a couple of questions that I have for you. And talk to us about your discipline. Does your dance have a discipline or a standard for the content that you teach with Dan. 

Danielle Lydia Sheather: Sure it's really interesting. I know at the high school level, yes. And it but it's not federally mandated. So different states will have different standards for dance. So for instance, I know in Utah the students predominantly study a modern in high school and ballet, but there are folks that are starting to use and certainly teach jazz but again, standard wise, it's a little common. Same thing with social dances like hip hop or house or [unintelligible] or things like that. Those aren't really standardized. So and I also think in part because those don't come from Eurocentric ideologies. They aren't necessarily codified in ways that we understand education. They are difficult to then put into standards, although I don't think impossible and certainly it's something that we should be continuing to look at, but with respect to universities, so we do belong to SUU belongs to the National Association of Schools of dance. And so there are particular things that we have to address within our curriculum. So for instance, at the end of the semester, we meet with each and every one of our dance majors to look at sort of their trajectory in the program, and then we have to evaluate if they're, you know, need improvement. Good to go. I don't remember good to go that's obviously not one of the standards but certainly we should,

Tony Pellegrini: it should it should be.

Danielle Lydia Sheather: Right good to go I like that. But so we have these these standards that we have to abide by the guests they are doing well. need improvement or student in not in good standing I think are the three. So we meet with all of them. And I really, I used to have that in my undergrad. And so I really like that every student also operates with a single mentor. So they're assigned a mentor but of course all of our doors are open and they can speak to whomever they feel most comfortable with. And it's just to make sure because I think one of the unique things that a lot of people don't understand is a BA and BS in dance versus a BFA in dance are not the same degrees. So BFA in dance is a professionalized degree where many of those students want to go in into performance. And so getting things ready like their resumes and their reels and their websites and their headshots. And dance shots, and all of those things are really geared in a BFA performance major that said, many students take a BA program and still want to operate in that way. So that's where I think the mentorship here really comes in. And so I believe the two standards that we have that operate that that I really think operate well at SUU are this idea that each student has a mentor and that we meet with them collectively at the end of the semester. And we can say okay, so in jazz class, this is happening and in ballet class and tap class and modern class in dance history and your, you know, theoretical courses. How are you doing with your Gen Ed's like all those things we have an opportunity to sit down and connect. 

Tony Pellegrini: Thank you so much. Yeah, with some of those. Which standards specifically do you feel that you connect with most as an instructor? 

Danielle Lydia Sheather: Yeah, sure. Oh, man. Well, I think I love mentoring my favorite. I don't know why but my favorite thing to do with my students is to see them through from the academic world into the performance world and I hesitate to call it the real world. I think that is complicated because we have some students who are dealing with real world consequences as we speak. So it's separating that feels a little challenging. So offering students even the opportunity we had a chance to go and perform for National Suicide Awareness Day at the Capitol Theatre in September ringing students there we used a piece from my piece last year was about 30 minutes. So we use a little section of that and just to talk to the students about Okay, so what you know, how have we been touched by suicide? What what are some things that we can bring to the table performing this piece? So I think just giving them the opportunities of like, this is what it's like to perform in the real world. Or, again, I'm using real world which is not my favorite thing, but this idea of connecting while still engaging in academic work, and then, you know, I still have students who sell contacted me from other universities that I've taught at or, you know, I taught at a dance studio when I was living in New York City, I would commute to New Jersey a couple of days a week and teach, and I still have students from there who, you know, asked me like, Hey, I'm dancing professionally, like, I don't like this contract, how do I operate? How do I talk about this? What do I you know, what are my rights and you know, I'm not a lawyer. So the first thing I say is like, I'm not a lawyer, you should go and ask a lawyer. So but if you're uncomfortable, there are ways of navigating some conversations that might help to make the space feel more connected and authentic to you. And that is by far like I don't want to live vicariously through my students. I hope no one dances like me because we're all individuals and we all have an opportunity to showcase our experiences, lived experience, authenticity, and all of those things. And so I hope that they can find the movement to make it their own, because there isn't one path to the field. Right? If you look at myself, if you look at Andrea, if you look at Alex, if you look at [unintelligible], if you look at our one of our former professors, Nick Blaylock or Casey Thorne we all have such different ways of arriving. You know, sometimes I think Susan, and I want the right answer. Look at us. There isn't one you know, and I think we're living through so that's really fun.

Tony Pellegrini: That is so exciting, that we can be our own individuals our own choice and there should be value in in those individual natures. You've mentioned a couple of for my teaching background, a couple of those four C's critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity, you really kind of identified in all of those. Could you take a moment and talk to us a little about how you work with the concept of critical thinking using those higher order, thinking skills of comparing and contrasting or problem solving to those those involved in dance at all?

Danielle Lydia Sheather: All the time. I think they operate both in a physical perspective and in a theoretical perspective. So problem solving. I'm thinking of like an anatomy class. So there are two labs that I don't teach the anatomy class here, but I certainly think we're dealing in anatomy every in biomechanics every single time we're taking a dance class. So there are two labs that I have used specifically in jazz. So one is a hinges and layout clinic and the other one is a leaps and turn clinic. And we look at it from you know, so for instance, not everyone's hips are going to align in a particular way. So what's the problem? What do you have to do to accomplish this thing, whether that's a layout, whether that's a hymn, whether that's a particular turn or a particularly leap, we're all different heights, I mean, we can even just take it from that perspective that like if the music is very, very, very fast, okay, so one might have to jump small, smaller shorter than someone else and that's just the ways in which we can operate understanding how music works like if the music's very fast okay, support how does that work in terms of our height our our the way our femur bones are stuck? I say stuck because of my right hip doesn't feel great right now, but better like in our acetabulum, right in our hip socket. If the rotation isn't there, okay, so what can we do to find ways to support your individual body in a way to that and still be able to accomplish the task without hurting yourself? Because I do think we're in another wonderful space right now, where we can start to not injure ourselves for our art a little bit. Now we have to push right like I want to say this in the same breath that like dancing is not easy. We are asked to be vulnerable every day of the week and twice on Sunday. We are asked to really show up in an authentic way. We're also sometimes very tired physically and mentally. So yes, there is this element of pushing. There's also this element of Okay, today, this hip hurts so how what can I do? Can I Can I still dance or should I not dance? Right, having those questions. So even in the physicality, and then with respect to critical thinking skills? I mean, I do think that that applies to critical thinking skills of my personal anatomy, but also, you know, when we're reading articles where you know, there are not that many programs in America that are have jazz as an equitable foundation with ballet and modern here at SUU we do and how jazz developed on American soil. We study ballet, we studied modern quite a lot, but those actually aren't American art forms. And so it's interesting to me how the Academy has approached and wanted to maybe, pedestal ballet and modern but not jazz, even though jazz is American. And so it becomes this complicated conversation where students are hearing that one of my favorite questions to ask the students is, have you heard Bob Fosse? Nine times out of 10? It's usually in the affirmative. Have you heard of the Rockettes nine times out of 10? It's usually in the affirmative. And then when I asked you know, have you heard of Pepsi Bethel? Have you heard of Mable Lee, have you heard of Norma Miller? Have you heard of Whitey’s Lindy hoppers. Nine times out of 10 It's in the negative and so just understanding we wouldn't have Bob Fosse if we didn't have these other forms that came before. And so having those critical conversations and dialogues and not not in a way to vilify their experiences or their training before they got here because I it's not, you know, we know better to do better, right. But if we don't peak their curiosity, if we don't question that becomes complicated. So I think even that like suspending the beliefs that we thought we had or own biases, whether that's explicit or implicit, and really investigating why we thought this was true, for instance, ballet is the foundation of dance. Well, people have been dancing for generations before ballet. was ever created. So that can't be true. But what does that mean in the world that we operate in? Right and so he can continue to sort of, like pull it apart and open up and like, I don't know, I like peer into the cauldron of like, what could.

Tony Pellegrini: I think that's so touching so profoundly in regards to really that? Next [unintelligible] that I'd like to address that that collaboration? You mentioned your work with your learners, you know, making sure that they're feeling safe and comfortable. You mentioned working with your peers and how they come from so many different so many different venues. What do your students take away from your collaborative skills to be able to identify for them, some collaborative approaches that they may be able to use in other classes in the world of work beyond academia?

Danielle Lydia Sheather: So we just had this conversation, I think, last week or the week before, but that you know, dance can be seen as this very competitive very, I'm gonna get mine thing. You know, one of the things that I tried to explain to them was like, you know, these people in this room are going to be the people that you're going to get to make art with for the rest of your life if you want, right, and now we're not all gonna get along. That's, you know, this utopian idea I don't know is is all right, we gravitate towards particular people. That is what it is. That's our human nature. But if we could suspend that competitiveness and really get at the heart of like, oh my gosh, wait a minute. I really liked the way you do this. And I really like the way you do that. Can we come together and create something new? And I've experienced that I've been very, very, very lucky. The department has been very supportive of getting guest artists in here. So the pandemic has also made that a little bit more financially viable. So we had Michelle Gibson, he director of the New Orleans Buck shout. So teaching dances from New Orleans that show up in second line in New Orleans. And again, I mean that these are really important foundational structures of jazz dance, she taught afro modern class, she taught an afro jazz class, and just just in the ways in which we can see how just having that collaborative effective meeting Michelle and saying, you know, I teach jazz in Utah. So the exposure to jazz and even to seeing live dance is difficult to hear. Our students have to go to Vegas or they have to go up to Salt Lake. Yes, of course, Utah Shakespeare Festival is doing wonderful musicals and sometimes there's dances and plays and the green shows, but in terms of dance being the catalyst for the performance, that we don't have that here right now. So we also partnered with Jacobs Pillows college program, we just received the funding to do that and students can watch a live stream or recorded live performances. And I think that alone to say like, oh, right, if I don't make this connection with Jacobs, if I don't make this connection with these Michelle Gibson, and if I don't make this connection with we had somebody from Holla Jazz, it's a jazz dance company in Toronto, and I'm Canadian. So of course, supporting Canadians but again, during the pandemic, recognizing and realizing that like, wow, everyone has been affected by this. And then having the opportunity for students to ask questions, right, like, Oh, how's the pandemic treating you in Toronto? Like, how is this How are you guys doing in terms of dance companies, right, because these people had jobs, these people had their lives their livelihood. And so even those bits of utilizing the I call it like your network of individuals that can support your students. I think it's a really wonderful way forward and a wonderful way for them to say like, Oh, how did you all meet and when did that happen? And you know, it's teaching them how to get in touch and how to talk to people and what values they can bring to places that maybe they've never been before, both students and faculty. So that's been a really lovely experience. And for I think, for our students to see it in real time and during a pandemic, I think that was you know, like it could still be done you can still do it, it doesn't feel the same. No, definitely not right. Would it be wonderful to have folks in the room and we have Dr. James Walters, it was a dancer with River North dance Chicago, very good friend of mine was is a chiropractor now and was at a chiropractic conference in Las Vegas. And I was like, Well, do you just want to extend your ticket from you know, stay at my house, and, you know, and then they got to learn some frank Chavez choreography. So again, just this idea of like, it's all kind of connected and you know, we have this, we know this six degrees of separation, right? But and I think at dance, it might be less I'm not sure I don't you know, I have no scientific science to back that up. But you can make these connections, you know, and I've been lucky enough to dance around the world. And, you know, I think that I continue to call people that I haven't spoken to in a long time and just be like, Hey, What project are you working on? And how does this relate to mine? Or how does this relate to yours or how can I help you? I don't know. It makes you feel closer.

Tony Pellegrini: What Danielle, what a wonderful opportunity. I've had to have to experience your passion to see your vision. Thank you so much for being a peer of mine on campus. Just one last question for you before we wrap up, as we're hoping Knock on wood here that there's gonna be a good legislative year. We'll get more additional positions next year, as these new faculty come. Any words of wisdom that you might have? You've succeeded so well here you fit in so well with our society with the mountains. Any words of wisdom for for new faculty that may choose to come here even from Canada?

Danielle Lydia Sheather: Sure. Yeah. I think, you know, for me, my experience was was difficult because the the isolation that a new person can feel moving to a place that is unfamiliar, is difficult. And then in COVID, it really kind of stopped that from even happening and so, you know, I think evaluating where places feel safe and brave and all of those things, I think is first and foremost, because we are we are people to like I know, we're faculty members, and we're working really hard, but we also have to honor that that that gut feeling that we all have so I know I certainly combated some feelings of isolation being the you know, in New York City, you can walk out and get your meal at three o'clock in the morning and go see your performance every single night and, and that kind of lively. Like always a city that never sleeps, so to speak. So for me that was that felt very jarring. So I know for myself, I go down to Vegas once a month, and I see a show and I have friends that live there and we go and we we see dance, you know it's something that's exciting. So I think it's twofold. It's It's learning to put yourself out there and it's also honoring who you are as an individual and I don't know that I will ever be a fully grown adult, sorry, mom. But I do think that I know who I am. And I've investigated who I am and what I need and communicating those needs, I think are really important and not being afraid to have the difficult conversations like. something doesn't feel right. I want to I want to address this with my colleague, a chair and associates or whoever you know, whoever you feel can gravitate towards, but also that you have support to that I think is the best experience for sure. Because I you know, I don't want to ignore those feelings of isolation, but I also have had some really wonderful opportunities here who growth I don't know, then of course leading on those students success stories. I mean, there's nothing like it. There's nothing else in the world that can't push me forward when I see a student succeed and whatever that is for them, right? If that's graduating and going and becoming a physical therapist, or that's graduating and going and dancing around the world. What does it matter for me, it just matters that they find that dance can live in their life in a healthy way.

Tony Pellegrini: Thank you for sharing that that growth is so almost addictive, if I could use that word to see it in our students. It's just so positive and powerful force. Thank you again for sharing your vision and your passion with us. We're grateful to have you on campus and we're grateful to have you a part of our SUU family. Friends thank you so much for tuning in today. To listen to this podcast. We hope it's been as entertaining. It's enjoyable as it has been for me. Please continue. We'll have more guests next month and we're appreciative of your time and effort. Thank you again Danielle. 

Danielle Lydia Sheather: Thank you so much.


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